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Fr. 749

January 5, 2017

5.) Repainting a government building:

How would one go about justifying repainting a government building in the different forums alluded to above, i.e. a.) – c.)? It should not go without mentioning that this is likely to be among the most trivial of political justifications of some import to the public.

a.) Between government officials, justification will almost certainly proceed on the basis of practical or functional reasons. Perhaps, the paint is chipping or the color out of keeping with the times or other government buildings. Perhaps the choice of color or the lack of upkeep is sending the wrong message to citizens about their government. In the first case, officials appeal to practical (or even aesthetic) concerns to justify the repainting. In the latter, officials put forward functional or symbolic reasons for the repainting, i.e. “what function does the government occupy in the lives of citizens if governmental offices appear as they do?”. In both cases, between themselves, government officials seem to do well enough without recourse to moral reasons in this case.

b.) Between government officials and citizens, similar reasons would seem to hold regardless of the group occupying the role of deliberating party or audience. After all, citizens may prove just as likely to evoke the practical or functional aspects as government officials. That said, there may still be need for moral premises of a more limited kind when the time comes to pass to action. For, as always, there is the question of justifying the action to those who are opposed. Indeed, citizens or government officials alike could take issue with the expenditure, the contractor hired or, conceivably, even the choice of color. So long as there exists plausible opposition of one kind or another, the justifying party, be they official or citizen, will need to show that the action proposed is a legitimate coercive use of collective force and resources.

c.) Between citizens, the same observations are likely to hold. Again assuming reciprocity or symmetry of reasons, citizens offering practical or functional reasons to other citizens are likely to receive practical or functional reasons in response, be they in agreement or disagreement. Given the proposal’s seemingly innocuous character, citizens could likely remain at that level in order to justify their reasons for proposing such an action. Yet, when the time comes for acting, citizens are likely to encounter the same question of permissibility seen in b) so long as other citizens are in a position to voice opposition of one kind or another to the project.


What can we take from the examples of 1.) institutionalizing freedom of speech, 2.) promoting tax reform, 3.) creating a new government agency, 4.) setting up a neighborhood compost and 5.) proposing to repaint a government building, all collected and discussed above? How do our findings relate to the question from which we set out: Can there be a political justification for a policy which is at the same time not a moral justification?

It seems that the question does not admit of a straight yes/no answer in that different parties occupy different roles within the justificatory process at different times. For cases 2.) through 5.), the a.) instance between government officials seemed prima facie capable of an amoral justification, leaving aside where the impetus for the proposed actions arise from. The b.) instance would, however, seem to suggest in the same cases that moral premises and hence moral justification, or at least consideration thereof, will at some point enter into the deliberation in a.). For government officials must be ready, at least to some extent, to explain their decisions and actions to a potential audience of citizens. For questions of basic structure or nonessentials, as in 1.) through 3.) this clearly calls for the use of recognizably moral principles.

Yet careful consideration of the cases 4.) and 5.) would also suggest that no question so innocuous that it does not raise the issue of permissibility at some level. Put differently, if it does not prove necessary to show the permissibility of a project at the time of its proposal, it will be necessary when the time comes for decision, implementation or action. All of which seems to suggest that all political justifications are at least minimally moral in this sense. A simplified version of political justification to someone might in this case read: providing the audience sufficient reasons why a given proposal is a morally permissible use of collective will and coercive force (and not an instance of duress). Only in this way might one hope to show why a given public or government action is not arbitrary in the way that an action exercised in the condition of anarchy might prove.


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